“It’s okay, sweetie.” She crosses the room and pulls me in for a hug. She reeks of cigarette smoke, whiskey, and some sort of spice that makes my nostrils burn and my eyes water. “I wasn’t bringing that up to make you sad. I just wanted to let you know that I’d never leave you, no matter what. I promise I’ll be here for you no matter what happens. I won’t become your father.”
I circle my arms around her and hug her tightly as relief washes over me. She isn’t going to make me leave.
“But,” she starts, and my muscles wind into tight knots. “In order for me to keep my promise, you’re going to have to meet me halfway.”
“Okay … How do I do that?”
“By giving me some space when I need it.”
Tears burn my eyes as I slant my chin up to meet her eye to eye. “You mean leaving the house right now?”
She sighs as tears stream from my eyes. “It’s not a big deal. You can come home on Monday when Bill goes home.”
I wipe the tears from my cheeks. “But where should I go?”
She glances from the window to the door then back at me. “You can go hang out in the car. That could be fun. You could take your sleeping bag out there and pretend you’re camping.”
“I don’t like camping,” I say pointlessly. “And the last time I slept in the car, some guys started banging on the window and trying to get me to let them in.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that.” She taps her finger against her bottom lip. “Maybe you could go spend the weekend at one of your friends’.” Excitement lights up in her eyes. “That would be fun, right?”
I glance at the alarm clock on my dresser. “I doubt any of my friends are even awake.”
She steps back, reaches into the pocket of her jeans, and retrieves her phone. “Well, you won’t know until you try, right?”
I warily eyeball the phone. “Their parents might get mad if I call this late.”
“I’m sure they won’t.” She urges me to take the phone. When I don’t budge, she grimaces. “Willow, this promise thing isn’t going to work if you’re not cooperative. I can’t keep my side of the deal if you don’t keep yours.”
I open my mouth to tell her I don’t want to do the promise, but then all the times my mom has disappeared for days on end flash through my mind. I’ve often worried that one day, she won’t come back, and I’ll be all alone.
While I try to act tough and pretend I can handle living on my own, I sometimes get scared, like at night when our neighbors are having parties or when someone knocks on the door, trying to get me to let them into the house.
“Fine, I’ll call one of my friends.” I take the phone from her. “But if they don’t answer, you still have to keep the promise.”
She holds the phone out to me. “If they don’t answer, I’ll find somewhere else for you to go.”
Grimacing, I take her phone, flip it open, and debate who to call. My friend Luna’s parents are super strict, so she’s a no-go. Wynter and Ari might let me stay over, but then I’d have to explain why my mom is kicking me out of the house, and I’m not ready to tell them about my home life yet.
Only one person knows about what goes on at my house, and that’s Beckett. He’s been one of my closest friends since grade school. I told him about my mom a couple of years ago when he came over to my house to work on a school project and my mom wasn’t home by the time he was leaving.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay being here all by yourself?” he asked, reluctant to leave even though his mom had honked the horn five times already.
I nodded, cringing at the shouting floating through the walls from the neighbors. “I’ll be fine. I’m home alone a lot, actually.”
He slung his backpack onto his shoulder with worry in his eyes. “Really? That doesn’t seem okay. I mean, my parents aren’t that great, but they don’t leave me home this late unless the maid or Theo is there with me.”
“It’s fine.” I felt stupid and silly and embarrassed, not just for having to defend my mom, but because of how loud the neighbors were screaming. It was bad enough bringing Beck to my tiny, broken house located on the crappy side of town when his house is so fancy and big. But we needed some rocks from my rock collection to do our project, so I didn’t have much of a choice. “I can take care of myself.”
“But you shouldn’t have to.” He lightly tapped me on the nose, something he did to try to cheer me up. “Why don’t you come over to my house and hang out until your mom gets home?”
My shoulders slumped even lower. “She might not be home until morning.” Or maybe even for a couple of days, but I didn’t want to tell him that.
He blinked in shock, and I waited for him to call my mom a weirdo and a freak like other kids did, but all he said was, “That’s okay. You can spend the night.”
I almost smiled. I should’ve known Beck would never call me a freak. “You think your mom will let me?”
He shrugged. “I’ll just tell her that we have to finish our project and your mom will pick you up in a few hours. She’ll be asleep by then, so she won’t notice.”
“But what about in the morning when I’m still there?”
“She has tennis practice at, like, eight and won’t be back until noon.”
I nodded and then packed my things, glad I didn’t have to sleep in the house alone again and thankful Beck was my best friend.
I glance at my mom, wondering how she would feel about me spending the night at a guy’s house or if she found out that I had already done that a handful of times over the years. Honestly, I don’t think she’d care.
I dial Beck’s number, crossing my fingers his dad doesn’t get angry that I called. He can be kind of grumpy sometimes.
The phone rings four times before Beck picks up.
“Since when do you stay up this late?” he asks in a teasing tone. “I thought you were on a schedule so you could get maximum study hours in or whatever.”
“I am on a schedule.” I turn my back to my mom as she examines me inquisitively. “But the schedule got interrupted.”
He sighs. “Let me guess. Boyfriend number twenty-seven is over and is being loud and annoying.”